The New York Times finally gained leverage over the tech platforms

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How The New York Times finally gained some leverage over the tech platforms

There are lots of ways you can think about the blockbuster news last week that The New York Times is pulling all of its content off Apple News, but I prefer to think of it as a story about leverage.

Traditionally, media outlets haven’t had much leverage over the major tech platforms. Because companies like Facebook and Google have reached “super aggregator” status, the cost of pulling content from their platforms is much greater for the individual media outlet than it would be for the aggregators. Sure, at any point you can remove yourself from Google’s search index, but the move would be a virtual death blow to your business, whereas the aggregator can continue unscathed.

And because the tech companies have a chokehold on the audience distribution, most digital media outlets have been generally willing to play ball anytime a social platform launched a new tool that required news orgs to hand over their content. Hence you had plenty of participants with features like Facebook Live, Snapchat Discover, and Apple News. Even in cases where these tools didn’t generate much direct revenue -- which, let’s be honest, were most cases -- publishers convinced themselves that the audience scale still made the platforms attractive. 

But The New York Times is the rare media company -- perhaps the only media company -- for which the calculus has changed to the point where it has real negotiating power against the tech platforms. The Apple News pullout isn’t the only case in which the Grey Lady has flexed her muscle. Back in 2017, it pulled out of Facebook Instant Articles, a native distribution tool that required publishers to turn over their content in exchange for a cut of advertising revenue. It blocked Luminary from carrying its hit podcast The Daily. And recently it became one of the few publishers that secured a multi-million dollar deal to be aggregated in Facebook’s new News tab. That last feat is extraordinary given that Facebook won’t even be hosting any native NYT content in exchange for all that money.

So why do Times executives suddenly think they have so much leverage -- enough to where they willingly walk away from major platforms with huge audiences (don’t forget, Apple News now has 125 million monthly users)? Two reasons.

The first has to do with NYT’s editorial heft. Because of its financial success in recent years, it now not only has one of the largest newsrooms in the world, it also employs the most talented and experienced journalists across most beats. With that kind of reporting power at its disposal, it’s breaking major stories on a daily basis -- stories that the tech platforms actually need access to in order to remain relevant.

Imagine you’re an Apple News editor and on a Friday evening The New York Times breaks the story that Donald Trump ignored intel showing that Russia was placing bounties on the heads of American soldiers. Because the Times pulled its content from your platform, there will be a several hour gap before you can expose your users to what’s arguably the biggest news story in the world. You’re going to feel the absence of the Times’s presence on your platform.

The second reason The New York Times can play hardball with the tech platforms has to do with distribution. Namely, the Times doesn’t need it all that badly. It owns the relationship with its audience to a far greater extent than most other outlets. It recently revealed that it has over 17 million subscribers to its morning newsletter alone. It’s spent the last 13 years pushing its readers to download its mobile app. Its hit daily podcast is distributed, for the most part, through a decentralized RSS system to every podcast app. It also probably has a much-higher-than-average percentage of its readers coming in through its website homepage.

This doesn’t mean it’ll be pulling itself off Google search or Facebook anytime soon. It does mean it can be much more circumspect every time a major aggregator approaches it with a shiny new toy, especially when that toy requires that the Times hand over its content.

Looked at this way, it’s easy to see why the Times decided to pull out of Apple News. Sure, Apple News is featured on every iPhone homescreen and boasts 125 million monthly users, but it’s well known within the industry that it produces very little direct revenue in the form of advertising share. This is partly because Apple’s never actually shown much interest in advertising and has thus far remained reluctant to leverage its user data to target ads.

Most publishers have stayed on Apple News anyway because they’re at least able to plug their website content and subscription offerings within the Apple News ecosystem. But it’s obvious that the New York Times’s analytics team was able to weigh whatever benefit Apple News provided next to the reciprocal value it was receiving from the Times and conclude that the exchange wasn’t worth it.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of other media outlets don’t have this kind of leverage, so they’re still beholden to the platforms, at least until they secure a waiver from Congress to sidestep antitrust laws so they can bargain collectively. Until then, the super aggregators will maintain their dominance while the rest of us are forced to play ball.

Why you should adapt your podcast episodes into multiple formats

Out of all the different kinds of digital content creators, podcasters have the most difficult time growing their audience. Because most podcasts are listened to on mobile apps, they don’t go “viral” in the same way that an article or video can. Instead, they’re more reliant on old fashioned word of mouth, and audience growth is often slow and linear.

One reason that so many podcasters struggle to expand their listener base is because they don’t do enough to adapt their episodes for multiple platforms. The savviest hosts will chop up their episodes and distribute clips across social platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Some even film their in-studio recordings so there’s a video version they can then upload to YouTube.

One of the best ways to speed up audience growth is to convert your episodes into articles. That’s what the company Podreacher specializes in. I recently interviewed its founder Jaclyn Schiff about how she decided to dive into this very niche form of content marketing and the role these articles can play in speeding up a podcast’s audience growth.

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How platforms like Patreon and Substack can supplement freelancer income

Whenever a Substack writer gets profiled by the media, it’s usually within the context of how that writer’s seen huge success on the platform. And indeed, some journalists like Judd Legum, Bill Bishop, and Emily Atkin have generated sizable incomes on Substack — more than they ever made writing for traditional media outlets.

But I think the hyperfocus on the blockbuster successes can set unrealistic expectations for the vast majority of users who sign up for a subscription service like Substack or Patreon. The reality is that it’s incredibly difficult to get your non-paying subscribers to part with their credit card information, and you’ll have a long slog ahead of you before you hit the critical mass needed to generate a fulltime income.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Substack can’t serve as a meaningful contributor to a writer’s career. In fact, I think we’re going to see more and more creators come to view it as the equivalent of an “anchor client.”

What’s an anchor client? It’s a freelancer term for the client that provides the most consistent work every month. It’s the fallback security that makes freelancing life possible. Usually, aspiring freelancers try to lock down an anchor client prior to quitting their jobs. It ensures that you’re not scrambling each month to pick up new work just so you can pay rent.

There’s a problem, though. The current turmoil afflicting the media industry has made it more difficult to nail down anchor clients, especially now that news orgs are trying to avoid pandemic-induced layoffs by reining in their freelance budgets.

This is where a platform like Substack or Patreon can come in handy. If you can achieve a baseline of a few hundred subscribers, then that’s guaranteed income that acts as a security blanket as you pursue freelance opportunities. In a recent Digiday article about the “rise of Substack entrepreneurs,” we’re introduced to Alicia Kennedy, a food writer who launched a Substack newsletter:

Now Kennedy — who has written about Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious” and food media controversies surrounding Alison Roman and the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen — has more than 3,000 subscribers for her newsletter, more than 400 of whom pay $5 a month or $30 a year for a bonus Friday Q&A. The income means that Substack now functions as Kennedy’s “anchor” gig, freelancer parlance for the recurring job that ensures you can pay the bills.

That’s $2,000 a month in income -- $24,000 a year. Not enough to live on in most cities, but that’s three or four fewer freelance article she needs to write each month to make ends meet, which means she can also be more choosey in terms of what clients she takes on.

A lot of writers might not necessarily want to put all their eggs in the Substack/Patreon basket and are perfectly happy with it serving as one of several income sources. I have a freelancer friend who has a book deal with a major New York publisher and regularly freelances for magazines like New York and The Atlantic. He has a Substack newsletter he only sends out a few times a month, and he’s generating something like $25,000 a year through it. 

He told me recently that he knows that if he threw himself into it full time, he could probably make a lot more money through Substack, but he doesn’t want to. He actually likes writing books and contributing to magazines. Substack, for him, provides a little extra financial security and also gives him a direct connection to his fan base.

What does this mean from a practical standpoint? That you should readjust your expectations before diving headfirst into a platform like Substack or Patreon and think about the role these platforms can play within a well-rounded freelancer career.

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I have a secret Facebook group that’s only promoted to subscribers of this newsletter. I try to post exclusive commentary to it sometimes and have regular discussions with its members about the tech/media space. Go here to join. [link]

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Creative Commons image via Needpix